Wargaming Tradecraft: Stripping Paint Safely - A Detailed Look

Stripping Paint Safely - A Detailed Look


Whether you're planning on painting models you picked up used or decided to restart something you're already working on, sometimes you need to remove paint from miniatures.

I'm going to show you some ways to safely break down a miniature and strip the paint from it. I'll also demonstrate how to remove paint from a single point on the figure.

Before getting to it though, I'll cover a number of safety concerns regarding some of the often recommended paint strippers out there. I've discussed the safety concerns with people before, many who blow them off as being unfounded. The main point I want to get across is: When environmentally friendly products like Simple Green exist and do such a fantastic job of stripping paint, it's irresponsible to recommend potentially harmful chemicals.

There are a couple things I'd be curious to get feedback on:
a) Were you aware of the safety concerns outlined in this post? (From a paint stripper or nail polish perspective.)
b) If you weren't already using an environmentally friendly paint stripper, will this change your mind?

Also, I've seen discussions defending the use of chemicals get pretty toxic, so please keep comments civil.



Safety First

There are some great environmentally friendly options for removing paint. There are also a lot of people who still push the use of chemical paint strippers that used to be really popular back in the day and people who take their advice, not realizing the side effects of what Internet has told them to use. I'm a firm believer of using non-toxic solutions instead of resorting to the nastier ones.

The following is going to sound a little "tin-foil hat" but it's worth pointing out because it discusses a serious chemical we're apt to encounter in our daily lives without realizing it and something being recommended on plenty of forums and Facebook groups.

What am I talking about?

The 3 primary offenders are Brake Fluid, Nail Polish Remover (containing Acetone) and straight Acetone.

[UPDATE] I'm adding Oven Cleaner to this list as it's been recommended by a few people as an alternative. Oven Cleaner seems to have less long term effects, but MUCH more dangerous immediate effects due to how corrosive it is. (Blindness and respiratory damage.)

At some point, when people were looking for paint strippers that don't melt plastic, they chose miniatures over their own health. I have no idea why Brake Fluid began being used, but I can see someone trying Nail Polish Remover - it's a chemical used for removing strong and sealed paint. If it's widely used, then it's got to be safe, right? The next step was undertaken by people seeking out the active ingredient that made nail polish remover so great at stripping paint - Acetone. Again, if people everywhere were soaking their fingers in it, it had to be safe, right?

Wrong

Material Safety Data Sheet - Acetone via UTSA
"CNS" = Central Nervous System
And lets not forget,

Material Safety Data Sheet - Acetone via Science Lab
And then,

Material Safety Data Sheet - DOT-4 Brake Fluid

Now, this brake fluid isn't anywhere near as bad as Acetone, but it's still not great. It's one more thing to keep out of reach of kids, and can cause a lot of irritation. When you're handling and scrubbing a miniature covered in this stuff, residue's going to cover your fingers, get under your nails (Which is why you wear gloves.) and fly all over. (Which is why you wear goggles.) But the bits flying around still add a chemical residue to your workspace that you don't want on your hands if you have to scratch an eye or are eating a snack.

Conflicting Information

Dermatitis, defatting, coma, liver and kidney damage, mutagenicity, affect the central nervous system, traces of cancer & birth defect causing agents, among other things. But keep in mind, we're talking about a chemical that is still widely used by the cosmetic industry and people everywhere, (Walmart sells cheap "professional" nail polish remover that is 100% acetone.) so there is wildly varying information on it. (For example, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says it's ok to drink acetone - DON'T DO THIS.) There are other tests which it was decided, 20 years ago, not to perform.

"Prolonged Exposure" and "Over Exposure"

Taking off the tin-foil hat, many (but not all) of the side effects of these chemicals deal with situations where you're using them on a daily basis (Prolonged Exposure) or are exposed to way more than you normally would. (Over Exposure) This reduces the chances of being harmed by these chemicals if you're just stripping paint from time to time, but certainly doesn't make the risks go away. Some media outlets are shining a light on the lack of testing and dangers that face people like beauticians, who work with this stuff all the time.

A Cautionary Tale of Chemical Reactions
Safety Measures

If you are going to go the route of using a chemical in your hobby efforts, always wear protective gear like safety goggles that hug the face (and fit over glasses) and rubber / latex gloves. Depending on what you're working with, a face mask and proper ventilation / working outside is a good idea. Be aware of potential health risks and how to deal with accidents by searching manufacturers for the product's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) which they're required to provide to you, BEFORE beginning. Read instructions fully and be aware of how chemicals can react to things around them.

Proper Disposal
In addition, there are the environmental effects. All these chemicals (including nail polish btw) are supposed to be dropped off at your local chemical disposal unit. (Usually a separate building at the dump.) That includes the leftover liquid you have after stripping paint.

In Conclusion

Material Safety Data Sheet - Simple Green
Since there are natural, environmentally friendly alternatives, that work just as well, why not use them in the first place?

Don't be that person who swears by chemical strippers and continues to suggest them to other hobbyists because you've "used them for years and never hurt yourself." Maybe you do take all the necessary precautions, but people get hurt from accidents every day. Consider the audience - that there are a ton of people, including kids, who turn to Internet for information and assume that if others are doing it, it's perfectly safe. Reducing the chance of injury makes our hobby a safer pass time. I've yet to read a compelling argument that defends the use of chemicals in comparison to healthy alternatives.

[Update] Lead Miniatures

A good point was brought up through the comments on this article that another thing to be concerned about when handling and scrubbing old miniatures is that minis used to be made out of lead. This means more residue and chemical baths full of stuff you don't want to handle.

Removing Paint from a Single Spot

Alcohol is a good go-to if you've got a spot you want to remove the paint from. You can get it from drug stores and look for the 99% instead of the ones diluted with water.

You can pour a little in to the cap and Q-Tips work great for removing the paint. Either rub the surface or twirl it in a recessed area.

On Thagrosh, I decided to redo his face and wanted to start from pewter to prevent paint from caking too thick. Paint some Gesso on the model's surface before painting again so you have a primed surface.


Stripping Miniatures

Pictured are the two miniatures I'll be stripping of their paint. Both are pewter, though the Marine on the left is probably over 10 years old and the elf on the right is about a year. This gives an idea of how the process works on paint jobs of different ages.

Plastic miniatures may take longer to strip and you could end up with some of the primer left bonded to the plastic.

Taking Minis Apart (Optional)

It can be helpful to take miniatures apart before starting over from scratch. It lets you reposition parts, modify them, gain access to hard to paint areas, clean off gobs of glue and can make cleaning off paint easier. This is optional though, since many paint strippers will also weaken glues and can make this process easier if you dismantle after soaking the miniature.


Some larger parts can be pulled apart, which makes things really easy. Just be careful you don't bend weaker parts.

You'll still want to clean off the glue, which can be cut off with side cutters or wire cutters. Another option is to scrape it off with a knife or cut it out by twisting a drill bit.

If you're set on taking the miniature apart before stripping, you can also use Super Glue Debonder, then after soaking a bit, apply a little pressure to cause the parts to come apart. But again, why not go the non-toxic route first?


Plastic miniatures are a little trickier to dismantle if they were properly assembled, since plastic glue melts each part and causes them to fuse together. A Jeweler's Saw is great for this because it's so fine it shouldn't damage the miniature. Wire Cutters aren't too bad if you want to go the brute force route because they're sharp and thin enough to cut plastic without too much destruction. Normal side cutters are so thick they'll often damage plastic when taking miniatures apart.

On the right you can see the shoulder joint where I've sawed through the top half, then used wire cutters on the bottom half.



Stripping the Model

Once you've got the miniature how you want it, it's ready for its bath. Any plastic container will do; I used the container that I turned in to my Home Made Airbrush Cleaning Station. But you can use a dollar store jar, old margarine or yogurt container, etc. My suggestion is that the container should be just big enough to fit the miniature, that way there's less wasted paint stripper after.

If you're using a chemical stripper, pay more attention to the container you're using - you may need a glass or metal jar. (The container the chemical comes in can be a guide, but chemicals can react to multiple types of plastics differently. MSDS sheets for your chemical will also contain storage information.)


Simple Green

THE paint stripper of choice is called Simple Green. It's an all natural, environmentally friendly, all purpose cleaner with both residential and industrial uses. It's also plastic safe.

Buy the concentrate so it's not diluted with water. Home Depot carries it and you can get it from their website or Amazon.

Pour just enough in to cover the mini and its parts.

Stripped

Often you can soak overnight, but it won't harm the model to soak longer. We were going away for a weekend and after 4 days, you can see the paint on the elf rippling as it wants to just fall off. The only problem I've found is primer can bond to plastic and won't strip.

Tweezers do a good job of pulling the miniature out of the container of liquid.

Brushing

An old Toothbrush is the perfect tool for removing paint after a miniature has soaked in stripper. Pictured here is the result of a single pass of the brush. 10 year old paint just falling off.

So basically just go to town and scrub the paint off of everything.


It's a messy process

Lay down a paper towel and if you have a nearby tablet, hope it has a screen protector. Even with the environmentally friendly cleaners, it doesn't hurt to wear some kind of rubber or latex gloves while handling the figures, especially if you have sensitive skin. Safety Goggles will also keep the little bits of cleaner, paint and glue being brushed all over the place out of your eyes.



The brush might not catch everything, so for the nooks and crannies I like to use a dentist pick, but tweezers or a hobby knife can work as well. You shouldn't have to scratch the miniature, just pull and push the paint off. Remember that any paint left will obscure details once you prime the miniature.


Taking Apart the Rest

As I mentioned above, paint stripper also does a good number on super glue.

At this point you can use a hobby knife to cut and pry off stuff like glued flock or caked on glued areas.


Cleaning Up

Use some hand soap with your brush and scrub the miniature clean to remove any residue from the stripper or pieces of paint left on the model.



Completed

Seriously, looks good as new.



Leftover Paint Stripper

You can usually use paint stripper multiple times, but you'll need to store it somewhere. This is another reason to use something like an old margarine or yogurt container.

Careful about storing chemicals

If you're not using a safe stripper like Simple Green, look up the MSDS sheet for the chemical you're using to know how to safely store it.

Disposal

MSDS sheets also instruct you how to dispose of chemicals. Simple Green's website instructs you to just make sure you don't pour out used liquid near a storm drain, but chemicals should be brought to your local chemical disposal, usually a unit at the city dump.

8 comments:

  1. It's been 20years I'm using pure acetone for stripping now. There is one point you have to take into account when dealing with all of these products : you just don't find them everywhere. French people (like me) tend to use a lot acetone for metal models (it melts plastics) because it's cheap and available everywhere when Dettol, simple green and fairy power spray are not.

    One very essential point about acetone is that it dissolves paint, which means it can get those nasty hidden paint remnants in the deep recesses so it's superior on that point at least.

    You are absolutely right about security and I highlighted tha tpint in a post of mine too :
    http://leadplague.blogspot.fr/2014/01/the-helpful-hobby-guide-to-oldhammer.html

    The Hobby is fun but comes with more dangers than that, from using a modelling knife, drills and all but spraying varnish and prime or even airbusing are dangerous too because of the micro droplets you can inhale and the gas whe using spray cans, filing and sanding lead is also so highly hasardous so everything we do must be done with the knowledge of the consequences.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're right that sourcing some of these healthier options can be tricky in other parts of the world. Internet is starting to get to a point where those gaps can be bridged, but it is still easier to drive to your local store and buy the supplies you need.

      I like how your article highlights the safety concerns working with the stuff though. Great message to get out there.

      Regarding lead, I haven't seen it used in North America in a while, is is still in Europe? Either way, excellent point that many of these old miniatures being stripped could be lead ones.

      Delete
  2. I just got back into painting after a 20 year hiatus, and quickly settled on Simple Green for cleaning and stripping, primarily because of safety concerns. Last time I painted, I was in college and there was no Internet. Now I'm married with two young kids, and there is a wealth of information if you look for it. I didn't realize there was a concentrated Simple Green so I bought the stuff in the spray bottle, and it even works, but needs more elbow grease. On the plus side, it works great for cleaning palettes - all mine look brand new! Thanks for the post!

    ReplyDelete
  3. oven cleaner works best on everything, and will not melt plastic or resin.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Oven cleaner is also INSANELY corrosive. These other chemicals give you a chance to rinse them out and might only irritate at first, while over cleaner causes permanent damage to skin, eyes and even your insides if you breathe it in. I do hope you're wearing protective gear or give something like Simple Green a chance to see how it measures up in comparison.

      Delete
  4. I used to use Dawn Power Dissolver (same as Fairy Power Spray), but that seems to be off the market now. Too bad--8 hours in that and the paint would lift off the figure in sheets. So for my last stripping job I tried Simple Green for the first time. It worked, in the sense that it was better than water, but nowhere near as good as the old stuff. I immersed the guys for about a day. Not long enough? Much more (and harder) brush work than I wanted.

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    Replies
    1. I wonder if you weren't using the concentrate, or maybe there was some kind of crazy varnish on them. Day is usually good, coulda tried longer.

      Delete
  5. There is a chance you are qualified to get a free $1,000 Amazon Gift Card.

    ReplyDelete

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